“They were madmen,” said Auguste Renoir, who narrowly escaped death at Communard hands as a young painter, “but they had in them that little flame which never dies.”
“Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so solvent and corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washings and scourings, and a drop of water, added to a clear liquid like absinthe, muddies it.”
- Alfred Jarry, writer, artist, lunatic, 1873 – 1907
“Kill it! Kill the fish!”
- Emile Moreau, anarchist writer, newspaper editor, 1860 – 1908
The buxom dancer smiled at Bernhard as she strutted toward him in the crowded Cabaret de Neptune. She raised both hands above her head, swayed her arms to the music, thrust her chest forward as she approached him and then wrapped one arm around his shoulders.
Nice, Bernhard thought, and she certainly wears red well.
Up on the stage a piano player, upright bassist and saxophonist played fast rhythms for the dancers. Oil lamps with red lampshades hung from the ceiling, providing a dim, reddish glow in the smoky room. Strands of dried seaweed also dangled from the ceiling.
The dancer threw back her long, brown hair and kissed Bernhard on his cheek. The push-up corset she wore revealed most of her large, round breasts. She then took a step back from his table, a barrel turned over on one end, put her foot forward and grabbed both sides of her skirt. She pulled the skirt up, revealing the laces of her black boot, and quickly turned her hips from side to side.
Bernhard smiled at her. Very pretty, he thought, very nice.
She shook her hips again at Bernhard. He smiled once more at her, nodding his head forward.
Imbecile, she thought, moving on to the next table.
Luc Girard and Maxime Levesque watched the brief exchange take place from their table across from Bernhard. Their other friend, Emile Moreau, hadn’t noticed it.
A witness for drinks, Luc thought. He stood and stepped across the narrow aisle to Bernhard’s table.
“A man, a-lone, is he?” Luc asked, stressing various syllables like he usually spoke while pushing his cape over one shoulder.
Bernhard looked up at him. How bizarre, he thought, taking in his appearance and how he spoke. Luc pulled his long, black hair away from his face, parting his hair in the middle and pushing it back past his ears. The writer had big, bushy eyebrows and wore one of his favorite outfits, a green suit, yellow shoes and black, hooded cape.
“Why yes, yes I am,” Bernhard replied.
“A drink, with us, you must.” Luc threw his cape back and swept his arm out toward his table and two friends.
Bernhard nodded in acknowledgement, stood and took the empty chair at Luc’s table.
What might be his game? Luc thought. And look at that horrible three-piece suit and stupid bowler hat. Must be a tourist from Paris coming up here to get what he can’t down on the Champs Elysees.
“A vis-ee-tor? Where come you from?” Luc asked him.
Bernhard was again perplexed by the way he spoke and also noticed the strong burning in this strange man’s dark eyes. “I am from Hallein, in Austria,” Bernhard began. “But recently moved here to Montmartre. Three weeks ago.”
“Tres bien! Willkommen!” Luc cried out, smirking at his rhyme.
Bernhard smiled back at him.
“And what brings you to our lovely village up on the butte?” Maxime asked. He reached up and scratched his bald, pear-shaped head. Maxine then slipped his hands over his round stomach as he tucked them into the front pockets of his overalls.
“I’ve opened a shop. I’m a tailor,” Bernhard replied.
“Hallein, is that a village too?” Emile asked, bobbing forward. The anarchist newspaper editor and writer squinted and his constantly strained face seemed to crush the round eyeglasses he wore.
“Yes. In the mountains south of Salzburg. It’s very beautiful.”
Seems smart, Luc thought, watching him. But something’s not right.
“I’m glad you’re not from Paris. Or any big city.” Emile then waved his arm out at the crowd before them. “Too many Parisians ruining Montmartre. Bourgeois scum in their top hats and waistcoats. I hope the thieves out on the street steal their pocket-watches and stab their fat bellies!”
“Dras-tic, is he,” Luc began, nodding toward Emile, “but still always pointed.” Luc smiled quickly. “More im-por-tantly, I know a game we play. For drinks.” Luc turned, glanced back at the bar and entrance to see if the bartender or owner were looking his way.
The bartender was busy flirting with two female patrons at the end of the bar. The owner, Paul Villone, sat behind the small cashier’s counter near the front door, talking to a friend.
Luc grabbed his cane, quickly stood, reached up and knocked a piece of seaweed off the ceiling. As it came fluttering down he gently caught it, taking care not to crush it.
Bernhard watched, amused and confused.
“It falls by itself, all the time,” Maxime explained. “If you catch it when it falls and have one witness to vouch for you, you get a free drink. But if it falls through one of the lamps, gets burned and you catch it and have at least two witnesses everyone at your table gets a free drink.”
Luc struck a match and lit the dried piece of seaweed on fire. Half of it quickly burned and he blew it out.
“Look at that, oohh!” Maxime cried out, clapping loudly.
“Great catch! What nimble hands!” Emile said, his tight face loosening for a moment as he broke into a wide grin and also began applauding.
Bernhard joined them with the cheering.
Luc gingerly held up the burned piece of seaweed with both hands over his head, not wanting it to fall while showing it off.
“Monsieur Villone, Monsieur Villone,” Maxime called out, waving him over to their table.
“Cooked seaweed, come see!”
Paul looked over at him then turned back to his friend. “Not them again,” he said, then left the counter and went over to their table.
The cabaret owner folded his arms across his broad chest as he stood in front of the four men.
Luc held out his hands, showing him the piece of seaweed. Paul wasn’t interested and just glared at him.
“Monsieur Villone, like I keep telling you,” Maxime began, “if it weren’t for our steady hands your lovely establishment here would have burned to the ground years ago.”
Luc smiled at Paul and shrugged while still showing him the seaweed.
Paul continued to stand there, arms across his chest.
“Our new friend, and new inhabitant here, saw everything.” Emile pointed at Bernhard. “He’s an honest man, certainly hard working. A tailor.”
Paul turned to Bernhard. “Where do you live?”
“Not far from here. On the Rue Cavallotti.”
“I haven’t seen you around too often,” Paul told him.
“I’ve only been here for three weeks,” Bernhard replied.
Paul then turned to Luc. “You’ve been quite lucky lately. Catching a lot of seaweed.”
Luc shrugged again. “My mother, she had quick hands. Like a cat.”
“Complete with claws?” Paul asked.
Luc could only smile at him again. Just don’t bring up my tab, he thought.
Paul looked over at Bernhard again. “A tailor, eh?” Then he turned back to Luc. “That’s certainly an honorable profession, I suppose. But I highly doubt your reflexes will continue to be so successful.” He knew the cane trick, glanced at it as the thin piece of wood rested against Luc’s chair then looked back at Bernhard. I could certainly use a new regular with money, Paul thought. Tailors aren’t rich but they’re better off than writers and artists.
Luc held the seaweed a little higher, showing it to Paul one more time.
“What will it be then?” the cabaret owner asked. “May I suggest a Combine for everyone?”
“The house specialty!” Maxime cried out, holding up his near-empty beer mug.
“Yes of course, the spe-cial-ty!” Luc said, dropping the piece of seaweed on the table and thrusting forward his empty mug.
Bernhard and Emile joined them in a cheers as Paul headed to the bar to get their drinks.
“And what is a Combine?” Bernhard asked.
“Paul’s favorite, and when it’s free, ours too,” Maxime began. “A mixture of white wine, cherries, grenadine and cherry liqueur.”
Another dancer, a voluptuous blonde wearing a tight, low-cut blouse, approached their table. She recognized the three locals, ignored them and stood in front of Bernhard. She leaned forward, pressing her breasts into Bernhard’s face, reached up, took off his hat and put it on her head. She then put one foot forward, lifted her skirt slightly and shook her hips from side to side.
Bernhard smiled at her, glanced at her large breasts he momentarily enjoyed, then looked up at her.
The dancer shook her hips at him again.
“She likes you.” Maxime scratched his bald head again while smiling at Bernhard.
“For a price,” Emile added.
“A pleasure girl, be nice to her,” Luc said to him.
Several glasses then smashed on the floor as a fight broke out in the back corner of the room. The bartender grabbed an axe handle, ran out from behind the bar and joined Paul as they pulled apart two drunks exchanging punches. They dragged the men to the front door and shoved them out onto the street.
One of the drunks saw Paul’s wagon and donkey, Ollie, in front of the cabaret and stumbled over to it. “Stupid beast!” he yelled, then kicked Ollie in his side. The donkey took two quick steps to his left and jerked its head back.
“Bastard,” Paul muttered and he took the axe handle from the bartender. “You stupid bastard!” Paul ran up to the drunk and hit him hard across his buttocks. “You don’t touch my Ollie!” Paul hit him again.
The crowd on the street watched and several people started laughing and pointing at the scene.
The drunk feebly tried to swat away the axe handle while also trying to run away but he could barely walk, no less run, as Paul followed him and hit his buttocks again.
“You don’t ever touch my Ollie!” Paul hit him one more time as the crowd cheered in approval.
Back inside Paul approached the table one of the drunks came from. He knew both of the locals he just tossed were petty thieves from rival gangs but chose this table because he saw there were more men sitting at it and wanted them all out before they caused more trouble, making it harder for him and the bartender to control them. Paul waved one of the barmaids over with the heavy piece of wood in his hand, signaling her it was time for this table to pay up and leave.
“Your night is over. You know the rules. No fighting,” Paul told them.
“But they – ” one began to protest, pointing to the other group of men.
“No, no, no,” Paul began, waving the axe handle back and forth each time he spoke. “I don’t care. Pay up and leave.”
The bartender appeared beside Paul holding another axe handle.
One of the men took a step toward the bartender but was quickly pulled back by his friend. “Not now,” the scrawny man told him. “We will get our revenge,” he said loudly, glancing at Paul and the bartender, “one day soon. Let’s go to Le Horloge Grand. The dancers are prettier and the drinks have more liquor.”
As the group of men stood and headed for the door some of them glared at the owner and bartender. One of them brushed into Paul hard, bumping him with his chest. Paul held the axe handle with both hands on each end and thrust it against the man’s shoulder, almost knocking him over.
The man pulled back his fist but Paul saw it coming and jabbed him hard in the stomach with one end of the piece of wood. He doubled over in pain.
“Get him out of here now,” Paul told them.
His friends took a hold of him as Paul and the bartender escorted them out the front door.
“I’ll need another one after that,” Paul told the bartender as they headed toward the bar. Paul then promptly mixed himself another Combine.
Luc finished his drink, took the small box of matches out of his pocket and flicked it up in the air with his thumb and caught it, signaling to his friends that he wanted to go outside and smoke some hash.
Maxime nodded in acknowledgement to him. Emile pushed his glasses further up on his nose and smiled at him through his tight face.
As the three men stood Luc turned to Bernhard. “Come with us. More free fun.”
The four of them approached Paul as he sat behind the cashier’s counter, across from the entrance to the cabaret.
They headed for the front door when Paul called out, “Just wait there, Luc. It’s been two months since you’ve paid your bill. I can’t let it go three.”
“Monsieur Villone, I have another book coming out soon,” Luc began, “and some ar-ti-cles.” He smiled and shrugged at the cabaret owner.
One of the thieves, whose friend was in the fight and group that didn’t get kicked out, stood at the end of the bar near the cashier’s counter and took an interest in the conversation.
“I don’t care,” Paul told him, picking up the axe handle from behind the counter. He then began to wave it once again with every word he spoke. “I don’t care.”
“But we are just – ” Luc began before Paul cut him off.
“At least one month then. Pay me one month.” Paul reached under the counter and took out the beat up, drink-stained ledger that had his customers’ account information.
The thief watched and listened intently.
Oh no the ledger, Luc thought. He’s serious. “Your dancers must be tired, need a rest. I’ve written a new po-em the crowd will love.” Luc had noticed a politician, a member of the Assembly, and his mistress sitting up near the stage earlier. “In honor of Monsieur Broussard coming out tonight. Let me recite it to everyone. Keep them entertained while your dan-cers rest. And to cover one month for me here.”
Paul let painters exchange some of their work, which he displayed on the walls, for payment of their tabs. He would also let some writers, whose work he liked, exchange poems that he would either frame and also put on the walls or let them give readings to pay their debts. Smart bastard, Paul thought, but my dancers could use a break.
“Half a month. One poem, half a month,” Paul told him.
Luc couldn’t argue with that and nodded in agreement.
Paul smiled as he stood from behind the counter. “Follow me.” He led Luc down the bar and toward the stage.
Doesn’t have to pay, the thief thought, can just recite a stupid poem!
Luc had not written anything for the politician and words and images of the politician with his mistress quickly filled his head as he approached the stage with Paul.
The cabaret owner waved his hand at the three-piece band, silencing the musicians. The dancers, not hearing any music, thankfully headed for chairs or the bar.
Paul then stepped up onto the stage and faced the crowd. “Good
evening and once again the center of the universe welcomes you home!”
Several patrons applauded and shouted out in approval.
“The beating heart of Paris, the wonderful Cabaret de Neptune, beats for all of you!” Paul raised his arms up in the air, exhorting the crowd and there were more shouts and cheering.
“As this great band and my lovely dancers take a rest I have a very special treat for all of you. You’ve seen his books, poems and stories everywhere and articles in Art Monde de Paris. So now I give you, as only Montmartre can give you, as only the Cabaret de Neptune can give you, Luc Girard!”
Luc took the stage and quickly scanned the crowd, to make sure Monsieur Broussard was still there. He spotted the politician, a portly man in his 50s, and his mistress, a ravishing brunette with high cheekbones, pouty lips, and long, flowing brown hair that reached her waist. Good, still here very good, he thought.
“In hon-or of our most honorable guest, a po-em,” Luc began, once again throwing back his cape then sweeping one arm out toward the politician’s table. “For Monsieur Broussard.”
He stared at the couple as he started to recite the poem that swam through his head and was conceived as he spoke.
“She had such pretty
long brown hair
that reached beyond
dare I say it?
way down there,”
People in the crowd, mostly men, laughed while a few women gasped.
“And her lover a man
of power and means
and all Europe’s queens,”
Monsieur Broussard smiled up at Luc on the stage and nodded his head up and down in agreement.
“So I say it now
proclaim it true
that I want his woman
yes through and through
he obviously doesn’t
care for her much
for if he did
other women don’t touch
his lyrical magic
that made them sigh
yet his wife remarked
was usually shy.”
The crowd erupted in laughter while the smile quickly disappeared from Monsieur Broussard’s face. His cheeks reddened in embarrassment as he looked over at his lover, who was also laughing.
“That’s not true!” Monsieur Broussard yelled up at Luc. He then quickly stood, almost falling over from the alcohol in him, turned and faced the crowd. “Not true at all, believe me!” he cried out, causing more uproarious laughter from the crowd.
Oh no, Paul thought, he’s angered Broussard.
Luc stood on the stage grinning, one hand on his hip, his other hand turned palm up, motioning up and down for the crowd to laugh more.
Paul hurried over to him, grabbed Luc by the arm and as he dragged him off the stage snapped his fingers at the band, signaling them to start playing again.
As Paul brought Luc through the crowd people were slapping Luc on the back, pointing at him and still laughing. Luc smiled at everyone until Paul thrust him toward the cashier’s counter.
“That’s not what I meant when I said you can recite a poem,” Paul told him.
“I think your people liked it fine.” Luc motioned with his arm out toward the crowd.
“Insulting a politician is not poetry.”
“To-night it is,” Luc replied.
“And should be every night,” Maxime added. He stood at the counter with Bernhard and Emile.
“You could get me shut down, and quick!” Paul shot at him.
“Nobody’s shutting you down,” Emile told him. “The politicians and their policemen would rather come after me, and smash my printing presses, than do any harm to you.”
“I hope you’re right,” Paul said.
The thief who listened in on their conversation earlier told his gang about Paul and Luc’s arrangement. One of his drunken friends, Claude Raison, a boxer and money forger with a pitted complexion like an orange peel, stumbled over to the cashier’s counter.
“I, I have poem too,” the huge man slurred, then pointed at Luc, “much better than his. Let me read it for our bill.” Claude then threw his arm out in the direction of his friends’ table.
“No, no, no,” Paul began, quickly reaching for the axe handle behind the counter. “This is not how things work here.”
“Obviously it is,” the thief said, approaching Claude and standing next to him. “You let Monsieur Girard do it.”
“I have known Monsieur Girard for several years,” Paul told him, looking over at the bar, trying to catch the bartender’s attention. He knew Luc, Maxime and Emile would be useless in a fight. “He performs here regularly and you can even find one of his poems framed and on the wall.”
“I heard your deal,” the thief began. “A poem to pay for his bill. It’s only fair you extend this courtesy to all of your patrons. And Claude has a lovely poem to recite, about his beloved Annabelle.”
“No, no, no,” Paul said again, once again waving the axe handle with each word he spoke.
Claude swung fast and hard, punching Paul in the face, dropping him to the floor.
The hulking man then turned toward Bernhard and the three locals. Luc, Maxime and Emile leaped back, terrified.
Bernhard heard the axe handle hit the floor behind the counter and darted behind it. Paul sat on the floor, rubbing his face with one hand while trying to push himself up with the other.
Bernhard grabbed the axe handle, stepped over Paul and went out the other side of the counter.
Claude was moving in on Luc, Maxime and Emile.
Bernhard brought the axe handle down hard across the top of Claude’s back and quickly stepped away from him. The drunk stumbled forward a bit then turned toward Bernhard.
Uh-oh Bernhard thought, he didn’t go down. Then he felt a sharp pain in his side, just below his ribcage. The thief had stuck a knife in him.
Bernhard cried out in pain. The thief pulled the knife out and was about to stab him again when Bernhard swung the axe handle at him, catching him in his jaw. The thief’s jawbone shattered as he fell to the floor unconscious.
“Watch it!” Emile yelled as Claude moved in on Bernhard.
The bartender saw the fracas and rushed over to Bernhard also wielding an axe handle. He faked one swing high with the axe handle then swooped it down low, catching Claude on the side of his knee.
The huge man buckled and fell to his knees and then the bartender finished him off with two quick blows to his head. Claude toppled over and lay motionless on the floor.
Bernhard dropped his axe handle, staggered over to the bar and leaned against it. He covered the wound on his side with both hands to try and stop the bleeding.
A crowd quickly gathered around him. Paul, with a swollen, red cheekbone, Luc, Maxime and Emile pushed their way toward him.
“Round up Ollie and my wagon, hurry!” Paul called out to the bartender. Then he turned to the bleeding Bernhard. “We’ll take you to the hospital. You’ll be fine, just stay calm.”
Bernhard nodded in agreement with him but had a terrified look in his eyes. “I, I’m a bit light-headed,” he said, sliding along the bar as he started to fall.
Maxime and Emile grabbed him.
“Let’s get him outside to the wagon,” Emile said.
“Step a-side, step a-side everyone!” Luc called out as they brought Bernhard through the crowd. “Make way for the savior of the Cabaret de Neptune! Make way!”